Oct. 25—Last week, seven child care centers in Western North Carolina, including one in Haywood County, officially learned they would be closing at the end of this month.
The decision was one Sheila Hoyle, executive director of the Southwestern Child Development Commission, called heartbreaking.
"We loved doing day care, but things change, and there are many other wonderful programs out there," she said.
The seven centers being closed are all operated by the agency, and many of the children in the centers were among those who qualified for state and federal subsidies. The reason behind the closure is purely a financial one.
"Reimbursement policies from the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education have required that our agency supplement the state rate in order to keep these child care centers open," the agency said in a news release. "We no longer have adequate agency resources to supplement the state rate. This is a sad decision for our agency, as providing direct child care services to the young children in Region A is at the heart and soul of our work."
There were two agency operated child care centers in Haywood — St. John's Early Education and Preschool and Silver Bluff Kids Early Learning Center outside Canton.
Another provider has already stepped in to operate the Silver Bluff Center, Hoyle said, and the agency is reaching out to other providers to find slots for the children enrolled at St. John's.
"Haywood has more child care centers than our smallest counties, and I've been amazed at the good collaboration we've had from everyone," Hoyle said.
While it seems like the agency decision to exit the direct child care business came quickly, Hoyle said parents have known about a looming crisis for a while.
In April, all parents were given information about the tenuous financial situation with child care and urged to contact their legislators, she said. Then when the new state reimbursement rate was announced Oct. 1, the decision was all but made.
"We wish there had been more notice but we've been warning this could happen for months," Hoyle said. "We held out until the General Assembly passed the budget and we're hopeful more money would come our way."
Hoyle said N.C. Sen. Kevin Corbin has been very helpful and sponsored the first-ever statewide child care bill. Even though it didn't pass, "sometimes it takes couple tries to get things through," Hoyle said.
Corbin said he's working on both a short- and a long-term solution.
"I got them a $30,000 allocation very quickly to help them with some expenses they didn't have money for, which was a just a Band-Aid," Corbin said. "The problem is with the funding formula. That's the long-term solution."
State child care subsidy rates vary from county to county, even between areas such as Haywood and Jackson. Overall, child care centers in rural areas receive far less of a per-child subsidy than urban areas.
Under the 2023 rate structure, a 2-year-old child in a three-star facility in Mecklenberg would be subsidized at a rate of $939 per child, while a Haywood child in the same quality facility would receive a subsidy of $565, or $374 less.
That's despite the fact that centers statewide must comply with the same rules and often urban areas have more opportunities to benefit from economies of scale.
"That needs to be corrected moving forward," Corbin said. "I've been working on that since I've been in the legislature — correcting funding to make sure we have equity in all my rural counties. Until this came into my attention recently, I didn't realize the disparity we have in that funding formula."
The bill Corbin introduced would have addressed the issue, but it didn't make it through the initial process. Still, the measure can be taken up again next spring when the General Assembly reconvenes for its short session.
"We'll come up with solution. It's a work in progress," he added.
N.C. Rep. Mark Pless could be reached for comment on this issue.
At this point, Hoyle is hopeful the 40 or so children at St. John's will be able to be placed in another center or pre-school. She is unsure what will happen to the building owned by the agency that is licensed to handle 160 children.
Calls to to several child care centers in the county had messages advising callers there is a waiting list that would likely take six months to go through. Others were fully staffed and had no space.
Several existing child care facilities are operating below capacity because of the difficulty in finding staff. Recognizing this, Hoyle said Southwestern Child Development Commission will focus on job placement services to help alleviate the severe staffing crisis.
"Our goal is to locate, expand or create an adequate number of child care slots for our working families in WNC," she said. "Wages for child care staff must be stabilized and increased. Child care is the workforce behind the workforce and stable funding policies must be developed."
Hoyle said other services offered by the Southwest Child Development Commission — child care subsidy administration, child care resource and referral services, nurse family partnership services and other services, both regionally and statewide, will continue to operate.
A news release from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services warned that more child care centers could face the prospect of closure.
In response to the center closures in the far western counties of the state, Ariel Ford, director of the NCDHHS Division of Child Development and Early Education, said a growing crisis of a lack of child care access is being seen across the state.
"Without access to additional funding, more child care centers could face closure. Unfortunately, the budget passed by the legislature did not include significant new funding for childcare. State health officials join Governor Cooper in urging the General Assembly to make this child care crisis a priority," the news release stated.
Beginning Sept. 30, most states faced a steep drop-off in federal child care investment, which was ramped up under Covid. The funding was mostly used to increase the salaries of the essential child care workers.
It was estimated more than three million children could lose access to child care nationwide and 70,000 child care programs could close without the extra funding.
"This will have ripple effects for parents forced out of work or to cut their work hours, for businesses who will lose valuable employees or experience the impact of their employees' child care disruptions, and state economies that will lose tax revenue and jobs in the child care sector as a result," according to the study. The number of children impacted in North Carolina was estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000.
Though the federal cut-off date was Sept. 30 nationally, the N.C. General Assembly extended the Covid-era subsidy through June.